Sticks in the Smoke 40: Golden Square, Soho, London


Delilah and the Giant Stiletto (Wednesday 23 November 2016)

Here, trapped between the ever busy parallels of (Upper and Lower) James and John Streets in the closely packed lattice of Soho, full of film and media organisations, theatre agents, publishers, art galleries, and an eclectic mix of cafes and restaurants, is a breathing space of trees, shrubs and flowerbeds. And more!

I arrive later than intended and feel under pressure to get my drawing done before precious daylight begins to fade. But as I turn the corner I have to stop and stare; Golden Square really is golden! Bathed in gold! Not from November sunlight (in short supply today), 040abut from the canopy of deep yellow hornbeam foliage, still hovering there, although many leaves have taken the plunge already, blown into yellow drifts on the paving and, at this moment, being swept into a bin liner by a nonchalant gardener.

Until the mid 17th century this was mostly grazing pasture in a tract of farmland called ‘Windmill Fields’. It was acquired by a pair of brickmakers and canny building speculators who had an eye on the city’s relentless expansion, and especially the craving amongst the gentry for smart properties at London’s fringes. Their plans for the square had to conform to strict design, drainage and usage guidelines laid down by Sir Christopher Wren (Surveyor General of His Majesty’s Works). Permission was granted in 1673, but it took about 30 years for all four sides of the square, with its 39 houses, to be eventually built. The new square had been given the name Gelding Close, alluding to its farming origins, but was quickly changed to Golden Square when it was realised that perhaps an address meaning ‘castrated horse’ would not be the best selling point! The houses were quickly snapped up by the aristocracy, clergy and political and military bigwigs. But it’s heyday only lasted half a century as, by the mid 040c1700s, the more socially active families had moved west to the newer, grander and more fashionable honeypots, such as Mayfair.

I walk all four sides, peering through iron railings into the garden: a rough grassy margin surrounds a raised paved square, with chopped corners. Gates on all four sides lead up steps onto this stage. Seated figures on benches are hunched and huddled against the cold breeze. A close group of young men, collars turned up, smoking and laughing, seemingly unaware of the ensemble in front of them: a trio of striking bronzes of human torsos, one reaching up with tied wrists (Homage to Prisoners of War): a temporary display of work by sculptor Josie Spencer. Rising above, and central to the square, is a white stone statue, a regal figure, dressed as Julius Caesar, frozen in mid speech with right hand outstretched (thumb broken off), but looking too much like Tommy Cooper in Roman soldier garb, with bare paunch overhanging his gladiator skirt. A pigeon sits proudly on his head. On the ground below him a large, open discarded umbrella rocks against the shrubs.

But over there, on the other side, and dominating all, is a massive 6 foot high, blue steel stiletto shoe (titled ‘Stiletto Heel’ by sculptor Kalliopi Lemos. Also a temporary installation). The heel is shaped as a highly reflective stiletto dagger. I decide to make it the foreground 040bfeature for my drawing and I open my sketchbook, trying to imagine the giant owner striding over the buildings to reclaim her shoe

This was originally laid out as a private garden with grass and gravel paths for the residents of the square. The central statue by Jan Van Nost was installed in 1753. The park information sign says that it’s of Charles II, but other sources claim it as George II. I think George wins, as he was on the throne at the time (and anyway, Charles is well represented around here; there’s a statue of him only a few streets away in Soho Square Gardens which I visited for Sticks in the Smoke 19  back in June).  Allegedly this statue was presented to the square by a benefactor who accidentally bid for it at auction!

By the start of the 1800s, the residential character of the square had changed. Original 17th century family homes were split into lodging houses, many occupied by foreign workers, from the district’s theatres and music halls. Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby (1839), wrote of Golden Square:

“.. Its boarding ­houses are musical, and the notes of pianos and harps float in the evening time round the head of the mournful statue, the guardian genius of a little wilderness of shrubs, in the centre of the square.  On a summer’s night, windows are thrown open, and groups of swarthy moustached men are seen by the passer­by, lounging at the casements, and smoking fearfully. Sounds of gruff voices practising vocal music invade the evening’s silence; and the fumes of choice tobacco scent the air. There, snuff and cigars, and German pipes and flutes, and violins and violoncellos, divide the supremacy between them. It is the region of song and smoke. Street bands are on their mettle in Golden Square; and itinerant glee­ singers quaver involuntarily as they raise their voices within its boundaries..”

A large group of about 20 tourists press together for a photo in front of the statue. They arrange themselves in rows like a sports team. Some of them fling out their arms to copy George’s gesture.

040dDuring the rest of the 19th century, many original houses were demolished to make way for warehouses and office blocks in a chaotic and unrelating mix of architectural styles, many of which still stand today. Golden Square developed as the centre in London of the woollen and worsted trade, partly due to its proximity to the largest concentration of tailors in London. By 1900 there were seventy textile companies in the square.

Under the surrounding looming buildings, and with its mature plane trees blocking light, the garden became a shady and dismal space. During the second world war an air raid shelter was dug under the garden, the enclosing iron railings removed to provide metal for the war effort and the space was used as a dumping ground for bombed debris. In the 1950s it was taken over by Westminster City Council and completely refurbished to more or less the current design. The plane trees were felled, light was allowed back in and the hornbeams planted. The gardens were renovated again in 1984 with new shrubs and flower displays.

Light is fading fast, the late afternoon chill descending. I try to work more quickly. Colours seem to change dramatically every moment I look up from my sketchbook. A pink glow spreads through the sky and the streetlights have turned on. People scurry. The sound of many wings clapping, pigeons hurrying to roost.

As I pack up, a booming, out of tune singing starts up and echoes around the square: a busker sitting on his coat on the steps is belting out ‘Why, why, why, Delilah?‘ using a large traffic cone as very effective megaphone!



(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016 and early 2017, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.) 

Golden Square, Soho, London. W1R 3AD
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 39: Deans Yard, Westminster Abbey


Tranquility and Sanctuary and keeping off the grass. (Wednesday 16 November 2016)

Away from the tumult around Parliament Square and the Westminster tourist hubbub and forests of selfie sticks, push past packs of tour groups flocking The Sanctuary, then through the Deans Yard arch and gatehouse. Phew! Step back in time into this tranquil collegiate acre of lawn and mature trees. I slowly walk the lane around this ancient square, past a mixed collection of dignified buildings, dating from Tudor to Georgian, Victorian and prewar, pressed together like a well- thumbed collection of leather bound volumes around the walls of a hushed library. The north and east side are some of the oldest. They house abbey offices and parts of Westminster School. On the south is the majestic Church House, which is the headquarters of the Church of England. And the buildings on west side 039dcontain Westminster Abbey Choir School (founded in 1560, and still educating the 35 or so choirboys, aged 8 – 13, who sing in the Abbey). I walk under its oriel windows and the lilting and piping notes of flute and piccolo spill from an upstairs music classroom; a calming counter to the hoots and toots of relentless traffic beyond this square. There are 10 original Victorian iron lamp standards at intervals around the square. I try to imagine their weak greenish gas glow filtering through the thick smogs of 100 years ago.

The land that is now Westminster was once a teardrop shaped island of about 660 acres, called Thorn Ey (later Thorney Island), where branches of the River Tyburn (now underground in conduits and sewers) flowed into the Thames. Wild, inhospitable and overgrown (hence ‘Thorney’). A small Benedictine monastery was founded here in the early 900s. The land was laboriously tamed and cleared by the monks so that it became one of the most fertile and productive pieces of land in London, with fields, orchards and gardens. Deans Yard is roughly where the monastery farmyard was shaded by an elm tree grove (which gave this part of the monastery it’s popular name ‘The Elms’). In the 11th century Edward the Confessor built the original Westminster Abbey on adjacent land and his Palace of Westminster close 039bby. Two hundred years later, Henry III rebuilt most of the abbey in the new, elegant Gothic style, housing a shrine to the canonised Edward the Confessor. Over the centuries, many additions and changes were made; the twin western towers being finally completed in 1745.

I pause at the far end in the shade of Church House and look back across the lawn; swathes and scatters of leaves garnish the mowed stripes. There, rising above, are the magnificent towers. The Portland stone ethereal and gilded in the sunlight. Almost vanishing behind the canopies of plane and chestnut: hanging veils of crumpled gold. A birch tree is a slender, sinewy, pale blue pillar. A plump crow picks the ground around its base, hunting worms.  I put my rucksack down on the kerb edge of the lawn (a nearby sign reads ‘PLEASE KEEP OFF THE GRASS’), and set up my easel. Uniformed Westminster School students walk between lessons. They traditionally refer to this space as ‘Green’. I overhear odd snippets of teenage conversation: “…go on, just put your tongue behind it and pull!..” and “..hmm, not a bad film, I rate it approximately 6.75 out of 10…”.  A couple of hurrying boys take a shortcut across the grass.

039aWestminster school is one of the UK’s most esteemed public schools but has its origins as a small charity school provided by the abbey’s Benedictine monks in the 12th century. Following the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, the school was allowed to continue. Today there are about 750 pupils from age 7 to 18 (mostly boys, although girls are admitted into the 6th form at 16). Traditionally they have the right to play football on Green.

Until the 17th century, pupils at the school had to share this space with a changing community of dangerous criminals and villains, who took advantage of ‘ecclesiastical sanctuary‘, which traditionally offered immunity from arrest within the abbey precincts. The area in front of the abbey is still called The Sanctuary, but I wouldn’t advise running here after robbing a bank and hoping you’ll be safe, you’re 400 years too late!

Today’s shifting sunlight dramatically changes the mood of  the abbey towers; one moment they seem to dissolve into luminescence; then a shadow passes over. Bringing weight and solemnity.

039cBehind me, a burst of sudden laughter and the sound of shoes clacking on the raised paved terrace of Church House and down the steps. Some pause to look at my drawing and one tells me she can’t even draw a straight line. I say I can’t either. They’re delegates taking a break from a local government conference being held today. Church House was originally built in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and intended as a central meeting and administrative building for the Church of England. It was redesigned by architect, Sir Herbert Baker to provide more space and was completed in 1940. Only a year later it took a direct hit during the Blitz, but suffered very little damage. For this reason it was requisitioned to serve as a more secure, wartime Houses of Parliament. After the war, in January 1946, the newly created United Nations Security Council met for the first time in this building. Today it houses various departments of the Church of England, and hosts the annual General Synod meetings. It is also a prestigious venue for all kinds of events, from conferences to weddings.

I close my sketchbook and pack it away. Muffled piano notes float down from the music room window. A leaf lazily twists and gently drifts to earth, exactly in line with the birch tree trunk.

(There are three other original gardens within Westminster Abbey which are free to enter: the Garth, the Little Cloister and College Garden. I’m hoping to return to draw them in early spring.)



(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016 and early 2017, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.) 

Deans Yard, Westminster Abbey, London. SW1P 3NZ
Opening times: 10-4 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Free entry
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 38: Grosvenor Square Gardens, Mayfair


“As I was walkin’ ’round Grosvenor Square. Not a chill to the winter but a nip to the air..”* (Thursday 10 November 2016)

The Ronald Reagan statue gleams at me as I cross the road on the southwest corner of the square. I walk past the modernist US Embassy building (designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1960. Although I think it’s been used as a model for countless multi storey car parks since it was built!). A powerful statement in an otherwise predominantly Georgian and neo- Georgian part of London, spanning the whole west 038awidth of Grosvenor Square. Its great gilded eagle, spreading wings on the roof, ready to soar over the luxury hotels and other embassies standing around these 6 acres. Debris and crumpled placards from last night’s protests against Donald Trump’s election lie discarded amongst the fallen leaves.
There’s been an American presence in Grosvenor Square since the 18th Century, when John Adams became the first American ambassador to Britain and, from 1785 -88, lived in a house on the north east corner of the square (ten years later he was elected the second president of the United States). The US Embassy and other departments have been here since the 1930s (Eisenhower had his HQ here during World War 2, when the Square was popularly  known as ‘Little America’). In 1968 there were large anti war protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War and, over the years, this square has been the focus for the venting of feelings about American international policy. Security has become a huge issue since 9/11 and the road in front of the US embassy was closed permanently to traffic in 2001, and defensive barriers put in place. However, partly because of continuing security concerns, and partly out of a need for a 21st Century upgrade, USA is now building a new high security embassy across the Thames, sitting close to the old Battersea Power Station. An energy efficient glass cube, due for completion in 2017.
Sunshine as I enter the park (and definitely a nip to the air!), speckled shadows over golden orange leaf litter under a grove of plane trees. This is a broad and airy space, which feels like a piece of ancient land. Which indeed it is; just like Berkeley Square, down the road (see Sticks in the Smoke 13), this was a piece of original pasture retained within a fine square of elegant houses when Mayfair was first being developed by the Grosvenor family in the early 1700s. It was laid out as a private garden to serve the residents of the square. Oval in shape, enclosed by railings, with hedges and elm trees. Formal gravel and grass 038dpaths and a pattern of shrubberies around a central statue of George 1 in a commanding position on his horse. It was redesigned in the 19th century, made less formal and with tennis courts and children’s swings, and the elms were replaced with plane trees, which could better cope with acid fallout from the smoke of the city’s hundreds of thousands of coal fires. George 1st’s statue had fallen into disrepair so was removed.
Heavy slate purple clouds are building from the west. Rain was forecast. I take the perimeter path, past the tall Eagle Squadrons Memorial, erected in 1985 at the southern end of the main paved axis of the gardens. The bronze eagle sculpted in 1985 by Dame Elisabeth Frink sits on its peak, silhouetted against the darkening sky. It commemorates the 244 Americans and the 16 British fighter pilots who served in the three Royal Air Force Eagle Squadrons before the US officially joined the 2nd world war.
On to the far end, where the September 11th 2001 garden faces the American embassy across the lawns. A semicircle of colourful and textural planting, symbolic of love, 038bfriendship and remembrance, including lilies, rosemary, ivy, lavender and roses. A wide green oak pergola, inscribed with the words ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’, houses memorial plaques for the 67 UK citizens who lost their lives in the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on that awful day. An anonymous sleeping bundle is swaddled in a blanket on a bench under the pergola.
There’s the smell of approaching rain, so I walk across the lawn and make a speedy start on drawing the view towards the Stars and Stripes on the US embassy flagpole, twisting and furling through bare oak twigs (see image at top). Many well dressed people stride past, talking earnestly, with a serious and important air. A jaunt of smart suited men with scarves talking Italian (the Italian embassy is behind me on the east flank of the square). Two high vis clad workmen stop to watch me draw. They’re taking a break from conservation work on one of the older houses in the square. Replacing cornices. One comments that drawing must be such a relaxing thing to do. I reply “Hmm, yes, it is sometimes!”, while consciously trying to unfurrow my brow and loosen the tight grip on my pen.
The inevitable downpour arrives and I quickly gather my things together and beat a retreat under a tree. For a while it’s torrential. I stand under my umbrella for half an hour, 038cwatching figures scurrying by under their brollies, fragmented reflections in the paving. Trees and buildings fade in the rainy haze. My shoes are soaked.
After the second World War, as the perimeter iron railings had been removed to support the war effort, it proved impractical to keep people out of these private gardens. And with so much surrounding devastation, access to green space was more important than ever. So it was decided to officially open Grosvenor Square Gardens to everyone. The garden was redesigned by architect B. W. L. Gallannaugh, with peripheral holly hedge, Portland stone axis path, pools, fountains and a bronze statue of Franklin D Roosevelt, sculpted by Sir William Reid Dick, high up on a stone pedestal (this intended as a commemoration to American support and sacrifice during the War and the relationship between US and the UK. It was 038eentirely funded by the British public). He stands tall and stately with cape and stick, above a seating area, flower beds and yew hedges. And pleached limes behind him.
The rain eases and the sky begins to clear and I squelch across to look at the statue of Roosevelt, reflecting down into wet paving. A lone bouquet of white hydrangeas has been placed on his steps. The note reads: “THERE WAS NEVER A DEMOCRACY YET THAT DID NOT COMMIT SUICIDE” –JOHN ADAMS. As I draw the statue (see image below), set behind a bed of fading shrubs, those words bounce around my mind. And I think of last night’s protests and the discarded placards. And I think about the memorials here to the consequences of inhumanity. And humanity. The sky is now clear and pinky blue; the sun has dropped below rooflines. A crane alone is catching the light and glows a silver gold. My shoes are cold and damp and I stamp my feet.  A nanny, pushing a pram that’s almost as tall as she is, stops and watches me drawing and we talk. She tells me she loves to paint flowers and won the art prize when at school in the Philippines. I look in at the baby and wave my fingers at her and say “helloo there!” She just stares out at me with the brightest, steadiest, most intense eyes. Full of promise.


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, London. SW1W 0AU
Google earth view here

 *From ‘Scarlet Begonias’ by The Grateful Dead

Sticks in the Smoke 37: St Anne & St Agnes Garden/ St John Zachary (The Goldsmiths) Garden, Gresham Street

st-anne-and-st-agnesConcerto for clanking scaffolding and saxophone (Wednesday 3 November 2016)

Back in the heat of August, while wandering this area after drawing St Mary Aldermanbury; St Mary Staining and St Olave Silver Street for Sticks in the Smoke 27, I came across this little pair of sainted green spaces, just a street’s width apart, also created in the footprints of churchyards devastated by the Great Fire in 1666. Extraordinary to imagine that 400 years ago, these 5 churches all stood so close to each other within an area of only about 200 x 200 metres. But I guess, in these heavily populated city streets and alleys, there would need to be enough pew space, when most people, devout or not, attended church. The chorus of ringing must have been deafening on Sunday mornings. (The bells of St Anne and St Agnes church are immortalised in a verse in the traditional nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons‘: “..Kettles and pans, Say the bells at St. Annes..”)

So I return today and, as I approach the junction of Noble and Gresham Streets, trees seem to be leaning out and shaking their autumn foliage at the glass and steel of the surrounding blocks, flinging showers of leaves with every shake. Many scarfed and wrapped office workers rush by quickly to escape this easterly breeze, chill as a blade.

037aThis area was on the northwest edge of Roman Londinium. A fort was built here in AD120 to house the official guard (over 1000 men) of the Governor of Britain. Wartime bombing uncovered sections of its foundations, including a square sentry turret. From the edge of St Anne and St Agnes you can look down over a wall at the excavations and can clearly see the stone square foot of this turret and stretches of wall, topped with layers of masonry and brickwork from medieval to Victorian. These two churches were built before the 12th century, just outside the site of the fort.

St Anne and St Agnes Garden
Around the corner a scaffolding lorry is being unloaded. Temporary barriers have closed off the gardens! Steel poles and planks are encasing the church in preparation for essential restoration work; hammers clang and ring as the structure builds towards the roof. I ask 037bone of the scaffolders if I can stand just inside their temporary barriers to do my drawing and he shrugs his permission.

In earliest Norman records the church that stood here was confusingly referred to either as St Agnes or ‘St Anne in the Willows’s.  By the 15th century, these names had been brought together in its double dedication. As with the neighbouring churches, mentioned above, this was also engulfed and destroyed by the Great Fire. Only the lower section of its tower stood above the charred rubble. But within 20 years, this had been incorporated into a new and elegant brick church, designed by Wren, based on a Greek cross plan. It was severely damaged again in an air raid in 1940. Postwar reconstruction was funded by the Lutheran church, and reopened in 1966 for use by London’s Estonian and Latvian communities. Since  2013 it’s taken on a new identity, as the Gresham Centre: 037cthe exciting home of the musical educational charity, VCM Foundation, inspiring and engaging young people through song and sound.

These third of an acre gardens were laid out on the old churchyard in the 1970s, a variety of trees planted, including maple, lime and catalpa, plane, ash and cherry. They wrap an L shape around the south and east of the church, sections of which are shrouded behind tangled and mingled branches and twigs of autumnal and evergreen foliage. I draw the complex leafy lacework in front of scaffolded walls (see drawing at top). At the southern end a rowan is a gold yellow flame, the most intense hue in view. People stream in and out of Lloyds Bank Head Office, just up the steps. Some stop to smoke, leaning on the wall overlooking the ruins. One of the scaffolders comes over to have a look at my drawing. He shouts up to his mate: “ere Kirk! e’s drawn a picture of you up there!….. Not very flattering!” In fact I haven’t drawn Kirk. He wouldn’t keep still long enough!
St John Zachary Garden (The Goldsmith’s Garden) 
On the opposite side of Noble Street, St John Zachary Garden is shaded by two massive plane trees, which compete in height with the sheer steel and glass Lloyds bank building 037dwhich looms like a cliff over the garden. Walk under an ironwork arch with golden leopard’s heads on either side and at the apex. This garden is on two levels. Past beds of evergreen shrubs and exotic plants, some late lillies still in ragged flower, and up five wide steps into a small paved and gravelled garden, with ancient gravestones laid. Here the gnarly plane tree trunks. Simple benches sit amongst ferns and spreading shrubs and low, feathery trees around the edge. There’s no-one here but I’m on the same level as the ground floor of the adjacent Lloyds building, and have a commanding view of multifarious and hectic office activity through the grid of windows. This is on the site of the churchyard of St John Zachary (aka John the Baptist), which dates from before the 12th century.  It too was heavily damaged in the Great Fire, after which it remained as ruins until pulled down in the 1800s.
A flourishing fig tree overhangs as I take the steps down to the sunken level. More golden leopard masks on guard, fixed to the walls. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths have owned land hereabouts, dating from 1339. After the buildings here were destroyed in the war, this little garden (less than quarter of an acre) was laid out in 1941 by firewatchers (in 1950, it won the Best Garden on a Blitzed Site) The lower garden is the site where the earliest 037erecorded Livery Hall was built. In 1300 Edward I decreed that quality of gold and silver should be standardised across the country, assayed by the Goldsmith’s Company and marked with the leopard’s head- the first ever hallmark. Today, assaying is carried out in the current Goldsmiths Hall, a solid Victorian edifice which sternly overlooks these gardens from the other side of Gresham Street.
Down here, a simple path around the edge, a square, well tended lawn with pedestal fountain in the centre, a few small trees and shrubs around the edge and climbers up the brickwork. In the far corner, a sculpture by Wilfred Dudeney of three printers, showing the whole newspaper process from editor to printer to newsboy (originally commissioned in 1957 for New Street Square, but moved here when it was being redeveloped). I look for a suitable spot to draw and set up on the lower path close to the Lloyds building, where warm air is wafting from a heating vent. A laurel in the foreground and a red- leaved Japanese Maple (I think) spreads out from the upper 037fbeds (see drawing above) Not many people in the garden; a businessman with his coat collar pulled up, gripping a steaming cup and murmuring into his phone. A young couple come down the steps hand in hand and sit on a bench in the view I’m drawing, hold each other closely and kiss. I look up from my sketchbook and we accidentally make eye contact a few times. A bit awkward.
Calls of crows echo loudly between the buildings: the song of the fast approaching autumnal gloam. And, to add to the effect, for a few minutes there’s the halting howl of a saxophone from the direction of St Anne and St Agnes Gardens.


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

St Anne & St Agnes, Gresham Street, London. EC1A 4ER
St John Zachary (The Goldsmiths Garden), Gresham Street, London. EC2V 7HN
Google earth view here


Sticks in the Smoke 36: Hyde Park 2

hyde-park3Ladybird shower and “The Right to Speak” (Wednesday 26 October 2016)

I pick up a coffee at the Serpentine Cafe. This is where I left off my last visit to Hyde Park in March, when I explored the east and south of the park (see Sticks in the Smoke 10, where you can read about Hyde Park’s hunting park origins). I can’t believe that it’s 7 months since my daughter Millie and I were here. Huddled and trying to keep warm with hot chocolates as I made my drawing across the lake. Today there’s sunshine and still a fragile warmth which belies the fast approaching end of October. As much as I can, I’m planning to roam the west and north of the Park today. I wander along and across the park road. Cyclists and joggers dodging geese along the lakeside. A stand of limes are flaming gold beacons on the leaf strewn grass. Their branches gently reaching to the ground, brushing the already fallen litter, forming pointillist speckled circular mats of ochre and yellow around their bases. I walk around and through this little grove and find a view to 036adraw between the trees, towards a shimmer of the Serpentine and the jagged Edwardian roofline of the Hyde Park Hotel (now the Manadrin Oriental. Originally opened in 1899 as an exclusive gentleman’s club).
As I draw a squirrel keeps jumping out of the closest tree and hops in circles, flicking its tail aggressively, with quivery shakes. I think it owns the tree and resents my presence. Then I feel something small and hard land on my head. I brush it off and it lands on my sketchbook- a ladybird! Then I see a couple on my sleeve. And another lands on the back of my neck. And they keep arriving like mini helicopters! Looking up, the air above me is freckled with flying dots. They’re everywhere! On the move to find hibernation quarters. I just don’t think my shirt pocket is the best place for them to see through the winter!

Many people are in the park: picnic groups, half term families on London day trips, a kid’s sports club is taking place nearby: excited yelling and enthusiastic cries. From behind me, the sound of construction: drilling and hammering – a long wall of hoardings conceals the site for Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. Coming soon: skating rink, funfair and Christmas Market! This its 10th year, due to open in mid November. Hyde Park has a history of hosting big events, from The Great Exhibition of 1851 (housed in Joseph Paxton‘s extraordinary Crystal Palace, which would have been visible from here, just on the other side of the Serpentine, sunshine sparkling from its glass roofs), to events in the 2012 Olympics (triathlon and marathon swimming in the Serpentine), to big concerts such as British Summer Time, which this July, hosted Carole King‘s first concert in London for nearly 30 years, 036bwhere she performed the whole of her 1971 album Tapestry live for the first time.

Drawing finished, I follow the path behind me, alongside the hoardings. It leads up towards the Reformer’s Tree mosaic, a rounded mound with image of an oak tree, created from black pebbles on a white pebbled background. It was designed by Harry Gray and Roz Flint of Colvin and Moggridge Landscape Architects and was unveiled in 2000 by Tony Benn. The inscription engraved in the surrounding sandstone circle describes its significance: “THIS MOSAIC HAS BEEN DESIGNED TO COMMEMORATE THE ‘REFORMERS TREE’, A VENERABLE TREE WHICH WAS BURNT DOWN DURING THE REFORM LEAGUE RIOTS IN 1866.  THE REMAINING STUMP BECAME A NOTICEBOARD FOR THE POLITICAL DEMONSTRATION AND A GATHERING POINT FOR REFORM LEAGUE MEETINGS.  A NEW OAK TREE WAS PLANTED BY THE THEN PRIME MINISTER JAMES CALLAGHAN ON 7 NOVEMBER 1977 ON THE SPOT WHERE ‘REFORMERS TREE’ WAS THOUGHT TO HAVE STOOD”

This feels like the hub of Hyde Park. A landmark; runners and cyclists use it as a pivotal point on their routes. Two children stand on top of the mosaic and thrust their arms out like tree branches for their Dad’s photo. From this point, 9 footpaths lead off, straight as spokes to all parts of the park. I take the path out to the west. As I walk the sun streams through autumnal foliage. Big cutout leaves of a red oak are ablaze against a maple’s lucent yellow. The path leads me past the Old Police House, which is now the HQ of The Royal Parks.
036cI carry on and arrive at the Hudson Bird Sanctuary Memorial, a relief sculpture by Jacob Epstein, of Rima, the jungle girl from William Hudson‘s novel, Green Mansionsspreading her arms as wings. It commemorates W H Hudson as 19th century naturalist and campaigner for wild areas in parks to attract and protect birds.  This part of the park is still a refuge for birds such as robins, wrens, goldcrests and mistle thrushes, although all I see today are a couple of magpies drinking from the long rectangular pond. This is the second week in a row that I’ve encountered an Epstein (see ‘Sticks in the Smoke’35 Roper’s Gardens). This more highly finished, but still the strong, broad and primal forms.
Behind here is the site of the Hyde Park nurseries. Currently being demolished for reconstruction as a £5million ‘super nursery’ to be opened in 2017, where flowers, shrubs and trees will be grown to supply all the Royal Parks. As I walk its perimeter, I glimpse through the bushes and trees at a scene of rubble, dust and JCBs. And then wander back towards the east along the latticework of paths which carve the north part of Hyde Park into little untamed pastoral pieces: many many trees in stunning shades of gold and 036drusset and cherry violet. I join the North Carriage Drive and march on to Speakers Corner.
Following the Reform League riots of 1866 and further protests in 1867, campaigners agitated for the “right to speak” in Hyde Park. The government saw this as a way of ‘relieving the pressure’ and avoiding further confrontation. So the Parks Regulation Act was passed in 1872, which allowed public speaking in the northeast half of the park. Although, since then, this paved area, where Hyde Park meets the heaving confluence of Park Lane with Edgware Road and Bayswater Road, has been the traditional point for soapbox speakers, and Sunday the traditional day. Anyone can turn up and hold forth on almost any subject, but they need the guts and staying power to contend with hecklers and arguments from the crowd! Speakers Corner is a powerful symbol of freedom of speech in the UK. A recent court ruling stated that freedom of speech should not be limited to the inoffensive but extended also to “the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, as long as such speech did not provoke violence.”
I draw a view across to Marble Arch and the white stone Art Deco facade of the Cumberland Hotel, rising behind. It’s a lively corner, a continual back and forth circus of joggers, cyclists, dog walkers, skaters, ice cream licking meanderers. A crossblader speeds by, propelling himself with ski sticks. No speakers here today, but lots of talkers, wanting to see and ask about my drawing. A little girl points to my scribble of tree branches and says she likes the ‘spider’s web’.  A smiling man pushing a bike, goes up to everyone he passes and says “Jesus London!”. He wheels over and looks at me and then down at my drawing and hesitates. But then says “Jesus London!” enthusiastically. I’m not entirely sure what he’s getting at, but that’s ok; if you can’t say what you want here, where can you?


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Hyde Park, London W2 2UH
Google earth view here


Sticks in the Smoke 35: Ropers Garden, Chelsea


Thomas More’s Head and Epstein’s Plinth (Wednesday 19 October 2016)

Walk here from the east along the Chelsea Embankment and, as you pass Chelsea Old Church, there’s a painted statue of Sir Thomas More (by Leslie Cubitt Bevis ), erected in 1969, with gold hands clasped tightly in prayer, sitting up on a plinth in a little semicircular garden (if you look on Google Street View, his face has been blurred out, which seems macabrely appropriate considering his fate!). Revered scholar and 035astatesman, Thomas More settled in Chelsea in 1520, where he built a grand home: Beaufort House, just round the corner. (Chelsea was a popular  rural location for the wealthy to build their large houses, conveniently close to the city, but far enough away from the stink! It was once described as “a village of palaces”). He had a close association with the Old Church and built his own chapel there.

The orchards, meadows and formal gardens of his estate rolled up from this stretch of riverbank where his official barge was moored (In the 16th century travel by river was much more reliable than the rough and rutted roads; Sir Thomas could get to Westminster or Hampton Court on state business with relative ease).  More was living here with his family until he was arrested for treason for refusing to swear allegiance to Henry VIII as head of the English Church. He was executed at the Tower in 1535. Beaufort House remained standing for a further 200 years, but now only few fragments of orchard wall remain in private gardens nearby.

I cross Old Church Street and take the steps down into this sunken rectangle of a third of an acre. The roar of embankment traffic dulls as I descend. I catch the scent of tidal water. Lined with characterless 1960s brickwork, two kerb edged lawns and a raised seating area with naked timber pergola (office staff and workmen lunching and smoking: a stage with ever changing progression of actors). Ivy and climbers trail down from beds at the 035ctop of the walls. A simple, well- used space with benches and lawns worn and earthy, but is lifted out of its functionality by the captivating bronze nude: ‘The Awakening’ by Gilbert Ledward (1888-­1960), which stands on a square column at the centre and, arms reaching high, dominates the garden. I walk around to get the best view- through tree branches, silhouetted against the river sky or looking down from the embankment wall. I choose to draw her (see drawing above) framed by the straight lines of the apartment block behind and the tall medieval windows of Crosby Hall (this is the surviving part of one of the mansions of Richard III, originally built in 1466 in Bishopsgate. When threatened with demolition in 1910, it was carefully dismantled and rebuilt on this spot, with neo-Tudor brick and stone additions added more recently and made into a private mansion). 

My easel is perched on the edge of the eastern lawn. There’s a litter of black nut husks from a walnut tree at one end. At the other corner is a dark barked cherry tree, planted to commemorate Gunji Koizumi, father of British Judo, who died in 1965. A magpie strides around the grass, chakking proprietorially. Above, patches of hazy blue sky between the clouds. Cries of soaring seagulls are interrupted by the rumble of aircraft, following a northwest flight path. The noise is somehow amplified as it rolls around the brick walls. The woody donk of walnuts dropping onto flagstones.

A sudden glint of light catches my eye as a woman slides open an upper door in the apartment block. She yawns, then leans over the balcony and shakes three rag dolls over the side. One after the other. Then aggressively whacks them on the rail. Then she returns 035bwith some small rugs and does the same with those.

Ropers Garden is on the site of riverside orchards which were part of the wedding gift from Sir Thomas More to his daughter Margaret on her marriage to lawyer, William Roper in 1521. Margaret Roper was one of the most learned women of the age: writer, translator and poet. After her father was beheaded, she managed to rescue his head from its spike on London Bridge and is said to have pickled and preserved it in a barrel of spices, until her own death in 1544 at the age of 39

I move my drawing things to the courtyard area at the eastern end of the garden. This is the site of a warehouse building which was one of Jacob Epstein’s earliest sculpture studios before the 1st World War. I start to draw the standing stone relief by Epstein (see drawing below) which stands here on a circular plinth (unveiled  in 1972): ‘Woman Taking Off Her Dress’, an unfinished piece in white stone, but fabulously full of energetic evidence of chiselled scores and notches. Arms grappling above the head, crudely echo the reaching arms of the Ledward bronze. Behind is a magnolia tree, its curving branches spread out above four rose beds, which have seen their best and are now little more than twisted sticks. And there, I can see, just above the wall, Thomas More in his garden next door.

035dA woman leans over the wall and calls “the plinth!” I look up and realise she’s talking to me. I say “sorry?” And she nods at the relief, “the best part of that thing is the plinth!” and walks off disdainfully. I get the feeling that the Epstein’s not very popular with the locals!

The buildings here were destroyed by a parachute mine on 17 April 1941 during the Blitz. On the same night much of Chelsea Old Church next door was reduced to rubble, apart from a section which included the Thomas More Chapel. Following the war it was painstakingly rebuilt and was reconsecrated in 1958. This garden was excavated out of the bomb site, designed, laid out, and opened in 1964, dedicated to Margaret Roper.

A taxi driver has parked his cab and is smoking on the steps. He blows a last cloud and wanders over to look at my drawing and we talk about art for a minute or two. He narrows his eyes at the Epstein and says “Not really my cup of tea, mate. Reckon the best bit is…the plinth!”


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Ropers Garden, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London. SW3 5AZ
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 34: Westbourne Green, Paddington

westbourne-green-1Flowers under the Flyover (Wednesday 12 October 2016)

A piece of land covering about 8 acres, mingling unevenly between thoroughfares ancient and modern and much shaped by their development. Overhanging this space is the elevated curve of the A40 Westway, which carries an endless stream of traffic east to west and west to east, and piggybacks the ancient route of Harrow Road. And then, a little further, crosses Edgware Road: the Roman Watling Street. The major westward railway tracks running from nearby Paddington Station are a musical score stretching just to the south. 034bOn the north edge of Westbourne Green, the Grand Union Canal bends like an elbow.

My shadow leads me away from Royal Oak tube station, over Lord Hill’s Bridge and then disappears under the colossal concrete slab of the overpass (Westway was built in the late 60s to relieve congestion into central London. The route closely followed the railway to minimise its impact on housing, but still resulted in the demolishing of a large number of buildings. There were campaigns and rooftop protests about the disruption and noise). I dash across the busy junction into the calm of these open, gently undulating grounds. The paths follow the dips and rises, between striped sweeps of mown lawn and oaks and poplars and shady stands of lime (It’s difficult to imagine that, 50 years ago, this was a demolition site and was then used to store the massive concrete sections of the flyover before being craned into place). To the west, the high rise housing blocks of the Warwick Estate are tall silhouettes but don’t overshadow, their stark verticals softened and broken by the billows of tree foliage, autumn tinged from bright golden yellows through to warm mauve greens. And further round: the red and white spire of St Mary Magdalene Church juts sharply between the tree tops. A handful of people, dog walkers, runners. A group of teenage boys stand chatting around a bench, leaning close towards each other as they talk. A man with orange work trousers lies on the grass and seems to be simply contemplating the tops of buses and lorries rushing over the flyover.

034aAt the eastern slope of the Green is a wildflower area: grasses and a mix of plants now dead, long white-pink stems and brittle seedheads waving stiffly in the breeze. But scattered amongst the dried herbage are bright dandelion- like flowers, very much alive. But not quite dandelions. Slightly bigger. I want to draw these exploding yellow stars in the undergrowth, with the thundering swoosh of the Westway above. So I set up my drawing things in the middle of this little bit of wildness and start scribbling in my sketchbook (see drawing at the top).

All around where I’m standing was once the hamlet of Westbourne, which dates back to well before the 12th century. Manor house, farm and cottages gathered around the green. The spring- fed River Westbourne winding through the surrounding fields. Over the following centuries, its well- watered and fertile meadows, orchards and nurseries provided produce for the growing population of London.  As I draw today, goods are being transported into London at speed from all over the country from right to left across my field of vision. And I try to picture weary carthorses 500 years ago, hauling heavy carts, creaking with sacks of apples and onions. Or livestock being shepherded onto the rutted Harrow Road, just in front of me, for the journey to the City markets.

Westbourne green remained largely rural until the mid 1800s when housing began to spread northwards after the new Great Western Railway line (Paddington to Taplow) was brought through in 1838. Building at first along Harrow road, but it wasn’t long before 034cnew streets of terraces pushed northwards towards the canal until, before the end of the century, this whole area was densely covered. The only green spaces were private gardens. The river was diverted underground into buried pipes and culverts, where it flows today

I close my sketchbook and walk out of the main park area and through the grove of oaks and planes, dappled shade across the path and grass. Past the lively Edward Wilson School playground and northwards towards the church and canal. With inter war neglect and wartime bombing, by the 1950s, this had become one of the most deprived and densely populated areas of London. This walk towards the church would have been through grimy streets, past tattered terraces, grubby kids playing hopscotch in the gutter. Despite the conditions, this was a thriving and close- knit community. But it wasn’t to last. In the 1960s, London County Council initiated a programme of major slum clearances which wiped the slate clean here. Many families were displaced to new towns out of London (such as Stevenage and Harlow). Others were rehoused in the Warwick Estate tower blocks that rose from the newly landscaped area.  Today, the church and the school are all that remain of Victorian Westbourne Green. A new, multi ethnic local community now benefits from this leafy, canalside setting.

St Mary Magdalene Church rises from the grassy, slope below the canal. Built in 1872, it was originally squeezed into a narrow site between streets, its needle spire soaring above the parish it served. It is widely recognised as architect, George Edmund Street’s gothic 034dmasterpiece in London. Two boys on wobbly scooters are racing each other down the slope past the church. I step out of the way and, looking down, see some flowers chalked on the tarmac.

The path continues up to a footbridge over the canal. We’re less than 500 metres upstream of Little Venice and Rembrandt Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 11) and just over 500 metres downstream of Meanwhile Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 18). This was the Paddington branch of the Grand Junction Canal (now part of the Grand Union), opened in 1801, built for the same reason as the Westway: improved access into the city, for all kinds of goods, but especially heavy cargoes like coal, timber or building materials, which were difficult and costly to transport any other way. The downside in the 19th century was the transporting out of the city of rubbish, cinders and horse manure, much of which was dumped in sites next to the canal. This wasn’t a pleasant place up until the 1950s: dirty, smelly, rubbish and rat infested.  But, opened up during the slum clearances and redevelopment and after years of clearing and restoration it has been transformed into today’s idyllic wildlife corridor.

A line of narrowboats are moored alongside the towpath. These are serious, lived in boats, with piles of logs on top, and gardens in buckets and growbags. I stroll towards the western end and, under a sycamore tree start another drawing looking along the canalside towards the Harrow Road bridge. On the wall across the water is a mural made from recycled scrap: a giant dragonfly, swans, kingfisher and frog, reflected into multicoloured ripples below. In front of me a beautiful metal fence with swirly circular design. More of a long, curving sculpture than a barrier, but separates me from the flow of runners and walkers, cyclists and skaters. A little girl walking home with her mother runs her lunchbox along it to make clink clunk metal-plastic music.

A sycamore seed twizzles down and flips onto my sketchbook.


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Westbourne Green, Harrow Road, Paddington, London W2 5ES
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 33: Porchester Gardens, Bayswater

porchester-square-gardens(Thursday 6 October 2016)

I walk a wide path, which traces around the garden’s long elegant rectangle. A sedate acre of lawns, flowerbeds and surrounding shrubberies, many mature trees, including limes and planes providing pools of shadow, cherry trees and ornamental acers. It’s clearly well tended and cared for. The tarmac is a deep purple patchwork within the patterns of strewn fallen leaves and twigs. All seems in slow motion, sharp sounds absorbed by the swaddling 033bsoftness of foliage above, below and all around. There are very few people, figures restful on benches. And, in the children’s playground, a mother tightly rocks her baby, as daughter swings.
At the time of the Domesday Book, in 1086, the land in which this garden sits was mostly rough pasture and woodland belonging to the Abbey of Westminster. It was well known for the purity of its spring water which fed the Westbourne River. At this time much of it was leased by a close associate of William the Conqueror called Baynard (or Bainiardus), who built the fortified Baynard’s Castle, close to the Thames riverfront. He used this land for grazing and to supply his household with fresh water. Over the centuries that followed, this tract of semi- rural land became known as Baynard’s Watering, later corrupted to Bayswater.
I arrive at the southwest corner directly beneath the flagpole, which proudly flaunts the garden’s fluttering Green Flag award. From this point I have the path’s perspective all the way to the far end, where the sun dappled stucco and porticoed windows of the terraces glimpse between the plane branches.

London’s explosive expansion into the surrounding countryside during the nineteenth 033acentury buried Bayswater’s fields under stone and cobbles. Squares and terraces spread and railway lines stretched and stitched these new communities together. Porchester Square was one of the last areas to be developed. Begun in 1850 and completed within 10 years, the houses were built piecemeal by about 8 different builders, more or less to the same proportions, and including the same features of columned porches, balconies and balustrades, but they’ve clearly tried to outdo each other with a range of different architectural ornamentation, such as scrolls, bosses, swags and volutes.
The leftover oblong of pasture in the middle was laid to lawns and flowerbeds to provide a private garden for the square’s residents. Although opened to the public in 1955, it still has the air of genteel exclusivity: the entrance gate is hidden down the side street and the houses of the north terrace back on to the garden where, in times past, children would have been able to run out of their back doors into a safe and enclosed play space.

033cThe shrubs are thick and abundant at the west end of the garden, shielding the busier Porchester Road. But I can see across to the stone lion heads roaring either side of the entrance to Porchester Hall, as sunlight rakes across its art deco frontage. It was built in the 1920s and houses a banqueting and concert hall. It’s had a colourful and sometimes controversial history: home to London’s earliest drag balls in the 1960’s. And it was where some of Monty Python‘s ‘The Meaning of Life’ was filmed (including the delightful exploding Mr Creosote!). Here too are the Porchester Spa:  London’s earliest Turkish Baths (still going full steam), a swimming pool and the Paddington Library.
Cars pull up at the junction and I hear an eclectic range of world music blasting through the railings from their open windows, from Armenian rap to Arabian hiphop. Bayswater has long been one of the most cosmopolitan areas in London, with communities including Greek, Arab, French and Brazilian.
Hardly anyone comes round to this end of the garden. A woman walking her King Charles Spaniel lifts her sunglasses to look at my drawing and says she thinks it’s ‘nice’. Meanwhile her dog licks my paintbox that I’ve left lying on the ground. The sun edges round and I catch an awareness of the flag’s shadow dancing on the lawn to my left. But I’m also aware of the sun hot on my right cheek. I move my easel forward into the slowly retreating shade and, by the end of the drawing I’ve probably moved about 3 metres! Later, the sky clouds over and an insistent easterly breeze sends leaves shivering across the path.

(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Porchester Gardens, Bayswater, London W2 6AW
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 32: Upper and Lower Grosvenor Gardens, Belgravia

upper-grosvenor-gardens(Wednesday 28 September 2016)

Like two wedges of Camembert pointing at each other across the cheese board, these two gardens are laid, with a whiff of France, at the edge of Belgravia. They sit within a long ‘X’ of mid- nineteenth Century Parisian style houses, tall and stately, with white stone arches 032aand pillared porches, and ornamental ironwork balconies. Built in the mid 1860s, these palatial terraces were designed by Thomas Cundy II to celebrate Gallic design and culture, echoing the newly opened French Renaissance- style Victoria Station. In fact there were 3 generations of Thomas Cundys (or would that be Cundies?), all of them surveyors to the Grosvenor Estates, spanning most of the 19th century. Between them they created the grand squares and terraces of Belgravia. This area was instantly fashionable, but I’m imagining the 3 Thomases collectively spinning in their graves at the thought that the houses they built are now some of the most expensive in the world, fetching up to £100 million.
Upper Grosvenor Gardens
This is the north garden, almost touching the grounds of Buckingham Palace, corner- to- corner, across busy Grosvenor Place. As I stroll around the modest wedge of lawn I sip a rich Sicilian coffee, bought at Victoria Station. Mature plane trees, foliage in yellows and ochred greens. Wafts of fallen leaves on the ground. Beds of evergreen shrubs in front of iron curlicued railings.  An unremarkable piece of ground but for the dynamic and powerful 30- foot bronze of a ferocious lioness hunting an antelope. These tensely 032bmuscled dark forms dominate the space. It was commissioned by the Duke of Westminster from sculptor Jonathan Kenworthy and installed here in 1998.
I set up in front of a locked and stone- piered gateway, to draw the sculpture within its setting. Backdrop of a heavily ivy- covered tree, dark against stately stonework catching the sun. A halting flow of buses become a broken banner of red. Not many garden visitors. A few workmen lounge on the grass and smoke. One jumps on the back of the antelope and mimes a riding action and shouts to his mates. Who mostly ignore him. Behind me, just outside the railings is a traditional green wood cabbies shelter, dating from the late 1800s. Aromas of fry-up lunches and loud snatches of cabbie conversations filter through. A young family walk over to the lioness. The father reaches his son up to sit him on its back, but the little boy starts crying when his dad walks away to take a photo, his roaring mouth so similar in shape to the lioness’s.
The silhouetted figure of a soldier stands to attention high on top of the Rifle Brigade Monument, forever facing across and over the wall of Buckingham Palace Gardens.
Lower Grosvenor Gardens
I leave the pointy end of upper Grosvenor Gardens and head across the 25 metres or so of tarmac and traffic towards its twin. But only twin in shape. Though also a triangle of 032dlawns, and also with mature planes, this space is far more decorative, with circular planted beds, tree ferns and box hedging. Halfway down, on either side of the park are two ornamental garden huts, which are embedded all over with seashells (mostly scallops, with conches in the pediments), pieces of volcanic rock and gravel in bands and diamond patterns. This afternoon the western hut is in the shade, but the eastern one is sitting in a pool of sunshine and, with the effect of light reflected from its textured surface, appears to be glowing golden and lustrous, and dissolving, as though only partially there, like a holographic projection. I get out my drawing things to try and capture this mirage.
After the second world war, the gardens were in serious need of a makeover, having suffered much from bombing, with piles of rubble and air raid shelters dug for the local residents. It was agreed to appoint French architect Jean-Charles Moreux to redesign the gardens in an ornate French style to celebrate Anglo- French entente cordiale. As part of this project, the shell huts were built in the tradition of  French ‘Fabriques de Jardin(small buildings as decorative landscape features, similar to British follies ). These are now the only surviving parts of Moreux’s original design.  The remodelled garden was opened in 1952 by 032cthe French ambassador, who dedicated it to Marshal Foch (French hero and Allied Commander during the final year of the First World War), whose horse- mounted statue (scuplted by Georges Malissard in 1930) sits high on a plinth at the south entrance to the garden and looks sternly across Buckingham Palace Road at the teeming entrance of Victoria Station.
Being just across from Victoria, this garden is heaving! Lots of travellers pass through with rucksacks and rattling suitcases, office workers having late lunches on the lawns, groups of construction workers from the site at Victoria, a few daytime bench boozers, several rough sleepers like bundled snoozing caterpillars on the grass. An old bearded man in a shabby suit and broken baseball boots, systematically riffles through the bins. The lawns are threadbare and strewn with the debris and detritus of its thousands of daily visitors. As I leave I notice a sparkling bracelet lying in the grass. But suddenly a huge cloud of pigeons burst around me from the other side of the garden, then swoop and gather expectantly in a dense flock around a woman who has put down her collection of heavy shopping bags with relief. When I turn back round to pick up the bracelet, there’s absolutely no sign of it, no matter how hard I look.

(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Upper and Lower Grosvenor Gardens, Belgravia, London SW1W 0EB
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 31: Victoria Embankment Gardens

victoria-embankment-gardens-1(Friday 16 September 2016)

A day of blustery showers: an autumn taste. I enter the gardens at the narrowest end, away from the sound of traffic splishing along the EmbankmentLo, and follow hurrying figures along the curving puddled path. Mature planes, catalpa and metasequoia, yews 031aand laurels, luxuriant plants, exotic shrubs and banana palms line the way and provide backdrops for an array of statues and memorials, including one to Sir Arthur Sullivan by Sir William Goscombe John, put up in 1903, with semi- naked muse draping herself seductively in grief (he ignores her, but looks across to the Savoy Hotel, which was built by Richard D’Oyly Carte with profits from the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas). Further along, I try out the brass button of the drinking fountain, memorial to Henry Fawcett (political reformer and campaigner for women’s suffrage), work of sculptor Mary Grant in 1886. It still works after all these years and spurts a forceful jet of water from its dolphin spout which sprays over me and a shocked tourist couple, who jump back, already damp from the rain! Then there’s the grand white Portland stone monument to Lord Cheylesmore (Army major- general and chairman of London County Council who, in 1925, was the first member of the aristocracy to be killed in a car accident), designed by Edwin Lutyens, behind a circular ornamental pond. It’s back to back with the Belgian War Memorial, which faces out to the Embankment, opposite Cleopatra’s Needle.
031bThis garden was one of several created after the completion of the Victoria Embankment in 1870, along the northern banks of this mile long, dog leg bend of the Thames, between Westminster and Blackfriars bridges. The Embankment was built under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, as described in my blog post about Whitehall Gardens (only a stones throw south of here), back in May. A hugely ambitious project to tame the Thames and assert London’s authority over nature (an embankment and road had originally been proposed 2 centuries earlier by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666). This string of gardens forms the decorative icing on this massive practical and utilitarian cake. Take a slice through and you have the Circle and District line, running just below (not tunnelled, but cut down from the surface and then covered over). At a ventilation opening on the east edge of the gardens, you can feel and hear the rumble and screech of trains below, pulling in to Embankment station. And under the road, there’s the cavernous Low Level Sewer, a major conduit which flushes much of central London’s effluent away to be treated to the east of the City.
A few spattering drops then the heavens open again and I make a dash for the cafe. A mug of tea bought, then I set up in the dry under the cafe canopy, looking across through a varied pattern of partially autumnal foliage, along with limes, tree fern and fig tree, towards the pink granite of Cleopatra’s Needle, stabbing up towards a slaty sky. Glimpses of the river, slipping silvery under Waterloo bridge. Snatches of chatter and drifts of tobacco smoke from occupants of other tables. A bedraggled looking blackbird scrabbles among the soggy fag ends beneath a dripping viburnum.
031dThe rain eases and I wander between lawns and brightly planted beds of rudbeckia and banana palms. The garden layout was designed by landscape designer, Alexander McKenzie in 1870 and is little changed. Curving rows of empty blue deckchairs are a patient audience to a closed up bandstand. I sit for a while. A couple are taking selfies, posing with a plastic white knight from the giant chess game. I watch some surveyors in hi-vis jackets battling with a mis-behaving theodolite. And a little girl in a yellow raincoat is chasing her father around the lawn. She’s parked her very shiny matching yellow ‘ride-on’ Mini Cooper expertly by the path edge.
I make my way out and wander through the heaving Embankment station and up the steps to the Golden Jubilee Bridge. I follow the raised walk away from the river, towards Charing Cross and find a covered balcony that overhangs Villiers Street. From here my sketchbook is protected from raindrops and I have a pigeon’s eye view down towards the garden entrances: between scalloped walls and railings, with plane trees forming a welcoming party. I can watch the crowds, scurrying to and from Embankment station; transitory snippets of hundreds of lives. A rumble of thunder rolls and echoes down the street. And then a sudden raucous screech of female laughter from the trattoria opposite. When I glance round I notice a blue plaque which announces that Rudyard Kipling lived there from 1889 -91, where he wrote his novel The Light That Failed, which references this area.
That building also houses Gordons Wine Bar, established in 1890: easily the oldest wine bar in London with, what looks like, its original drab brown Victorian frontage. Before the Embankment was built, it had been a warehouse on the river’s edge, where sacks of seed 031cand grain would have been winched directly from river barges. It sits on the corner with Watergate Walk, where you can follow the path along to the York House Water Gate. This impressive arched gateway was built in 1626, designed by Sir Balthazar Gerbier as the river access for York House, the residence of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Originally lapped by the grey Thames waters, it’s now landlocked, looking out onto the potted palms, flowerbeds and lawns of Victoria Embankment Gardens.
Drawing done, I close my sketchbook. My eye is caught by a gleam of evening sun, which streaks into the Pink Pansy flower stall at the bottom of the street, between the gardens and the station entrance, shimmering down into the wet pavement.


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Victoria Embankment Gardens, Villiers St, London WC2N 6PB
Google earth view here